EU-Canada trade talks hit snag on wording of human rights clause

OTTAWA – There’s a new pothole on the long, bumpy road towards a Canada-Europe free trade deal: whether human rights and weapons of mass destruction should be addressed in a side agreement to the overall pact.

Diplomats from the European Union say that Canada is balking at the inclusion of language in a final text that would speak to the importance of affirming human rights and non-proliferation efforts.

The clauses would not appear in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement but in a separate so-called Strategic Partnership Agreement.

The EU’s new ambassador to Canada, Marie-Anne Coninsx, said Tuesday the two pacts are linked and there won’t be a deal on one without the other.

The long-stalled free trade talks have been a work in progress since 2009, while negotiations on the partnership agreement started in 2011.

Coninsx said she knows Canada and the EU agree totally on the importance of human rights, but if it’s not included in the agreement, that could affect the bloc’s future treaty negotiations.

“If we would say, ‘OK’ with all agreements in the world, but not Canada, we send out a wrong signal with other countries,” she said.

Manfred Auster, head of the EU’s political sector, said the EU insists that all major agreements it negotiates contain language that promotes human rights and fights the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“We think Canada is fighting against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction globally. We are completely sure that Canada, like ourselves, is promoting human rights,” Auster said.

But he said leaving it out of the current negotiations would set “a kind of negative precedent” in the EU’s future treaty talks.

Auster suggested that could give other countries, perhaps those with less stellar human rights records, some wiggle room to keep those two issues out of their agreements with the EU.

“We think because we share these rights, we want to demonstrate to a third country that we do share them, and not create a precedent,” he said.

“That’s why we’re discussing them in the context of both the agreements.”

Coninsx moved to play down the issue, saying it could be solved.

“It’s just a question of finding a right wording.”

Overall, the envoy said the free trade talks have “intensified over the last weeks,” and “there is very good progress which has been made.”

Coninsx appeared to be moving to dial down some of the heated rhetoric between both sides that has emerged in recent months as the free trade talks have dragged on.

The European side has said an agreement could have been reached as early as this past February; Canada has shot back, saying it won’t sign a deal that is bad for the country.

Beef and pork had been among the biggest obstacles to a deal, but the two sides recently reached a tentative settlement.

In a meeting with reporters, Coninsx declined to be drawn into any discussion on the specifics of the trade talks.

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